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Piano Festival Puts Students At The Keys Of Great Composers

Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms. History's greatest composers wrote their masterpieces on the piano. But the instruments they played were very different from the grand pianos we see in contemporary concert halls. A group of music students from the College of the Holy Cross will take a trip back in time at the Historic Piano Festival. They'll play on pianos from a large collection that date back to 1790.

[soundslide]http://www.wbur.org/files/soundslides/2009/wbur_0417_historic-pianos[/soundslide]

Samuel Partyka is one of 25 Holy Cross students performing Beethoven's String Trio in C Minor, Opus 2, No.3 in the annual festival. At a rehearsal a few days before the performance, he says sitting at an instrument like the one the composer once played is a thrill.

"This is a piano from that time period," Partyka says. "And I'm playing on it. I'm playing the music, which was composed at that time period, and it's a great experience."

Patricia Frederick and her husband Edmund are lending their historic pianos to the festival. They've been collecting the instruments for 35 years. Two dozen are housed here, in Ashburnham, in a former library building. Their antique grand pianos date between 1790 and 1907.

"This piano was made about 1805, 1810 in Vienna," Frederick tells me as we tour the collection. "It's probably the last kind of piano Beethovan was able to hear before he was too deaf to hear things clearly."

Edmond Frederick is playing a German-made Bluthner — what Debussy would've played. It's the only twentieth-century piano in the collection.

"As you see, it's a big, black monster," Edmund Frederick says. "Has lots and lots of tension on it — in fact it has more tension on it than a standard modern Steinway concert grand."

Pianos have changed a lot over the years. Modern pianos are bigger and much louder than their ancestors. The strings are thicker. They have metal frames. The history is interesting enough, but Frederick says the real importance is found in the sound. That's why they call this place a piano study center, not a museum.

"Museums are about things that you look at, and we're not," Frederick says, laughing.

The Fredericks are always playing their pianos. As Patricia Frederick plays the Viennese piano from 1805, she says if you tried to play a high-speed piano exercise, written by a student of Beethoven, on a modern piano, "you'd probably come away from it as though your arm was on fire."

"But you get back to the kind of piano the composer was using," Edmund Frederick adds. "Oh! It's physically actually not that difficult at all and all of a sudden it makes sense."

Sarah Grunstein is a professional pianist and assistant professor at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester. She's also the organizer for the Historic Piano Festival. "Ear opening" is how she laughingly refers to the experience of playing an old piano. "We lose a lot of the compositional intent if we don't understand how it sounded on the original instrument."

That's why Grunstein arranged this for her students. It's something like time travel for them. Or a perfect music history lesson. The young musicians can get close to the great composers of the past. And it's a rare opportunity, she says, because the Frederick Collection is unique and unsurpassed in this country.

"That's very, very much why I find it important to bring students to this collection," Grunstein says. "That's why I find it important for professional musicians to come here; it's why I think it's important that audiences come here."

And audiences do. The Fredericks host concerts featuring their historic pianos as often as they can.

This program aired on April 17, 2009. The audio for this program is not available.

Andrea Shea Twitter Arts Reporter
Andrea Shea is WBUR's arts reporter.

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